The University of Saskatchewan men’s hockey team will have Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medallist Mike Babcock behind the bench next season.
“This opportunity to go back to Saskatchewan, to our home, to be around our families and to coach college hockey was just too good, and so we're excited,” Babcock said Tuesday.
“Actually it's ridiculous how excited we are about it.”
Long-time head coach Dave Adolph announced his retirement in December. Huskie Athletics chief athletic officer Dave Hardy said it didn’t take long for him to pick up the phone and call Babcock.
Hardy said it became clear in late January that Babcock would return to coach the same team he played for in the 1981-1982 season.
“It seemed like a pretty good fit, with our family situation that made it real,” said Babcock.
Babcock will volunteer his time, with the goal of mentoring the person who will become the program’s next full-time head coach.
Hardy says by the end of March, Huskie Athletics will narrow down their shortlist of candidates for an associate coach who would succeed Babcock.
Babcock said he will evaluate how long he’d like to stay with the program in one-year intervals.
“I'm going there to do everything I can, to recruit and help the team win, to carry on what Dave Adolph has done.”
Huskies forward Carter Folk says he was surprised to learn about the hire.
“It seems pretty wild,” he said, adding that Babcock will help to elevate what’s already a well-established program in U Sports hockey.
“Coaching Olympic teams, obviously coaching in the NHL, it's a big name.”
Hardy says it will be difficult to improve on the record that Adolph leaves behind - but adding what might be the game’s biggest coaching name will bring more interest.
“I think it will have a financial spin off for us,” he said. “I expect to see Merlis Belsher Place packed next year. Packed at home, and on the road. I think Mike has a history of winning wherever he's gone.”
Controversy over treatment of players
After Babcock’s tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs ended, he faced allegations that he had verbally assaulted former Detroit Red Wings player Johan Franzen.
He was also alleged to have asked Toronto Maple Leafs player Mitch Marner, then 19, to rank his teammates from hardest-working to least hardest-working and then shared the list with the team. He has said he had apologized to Marner at the time.
Babcock says he met with the leadership group of the Huskies hockey team and discussed those issues.
“I think anytime you do anything in life you have to own it, but I also think if you haven't, you shouldn't own it,” Babcock said of the situation. “For me, I don't believe this all passes the smell test.”
Both Babcock and Hardy point to his success and continued employment in professional hockey, as well as working alongside former players like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, as examples of why those incidents don’t tell the full story.
“Something doesn't add up here,” said Babcock, who admitted there are things he’s said that he wish he could take back.
“But is your intention good? Are you trying to make players better? Are you trying to treat them right to maximize the team? Absolutely,” he said.
“You can't have the success I've had without having really good cultures. You can't have the family I have, the wife I have, the kids I have, extended family, without caring about people. It doesn't work like that.”
“I think he has reflected on his relationship with players, and how he might deal with that going forward,” said Hardy. “Mike has been successful for 34 years as a coach, and you have to be able to maintain positive relationships with players to be able to do that.”
Folk says his opinion about his new coach will be formed when he gets to experience what he’s like first-hand.
“As far as I know he's tried to make kind of amends for that,” he said. “I’ll see what my experiences are, and then I can comment.”
Babcock isn’t new to coaching university hockey, after leading the University of Lethbridge to a national title in 1993-1994, his only season with program, but he says there will be changes to the way he coaches with the Huskies.
“You can't keep your job unless you're evolving, unless you're getting better each and every year, someone else will have your job. Coaching is about lifelong learning, you're always learning from what happened,” he said.
Hardy says the program has applied for an exemption with the Saskatchewan Health Authority “the same as the WHL has” in order to allow groups of eight players to hit the ice in Saskatoon.
No schedule for a men’s hockey regular season starting in the fall has been released yet.
With files from CTVNews.ca